I started volunteering at Northside Hospital on January 4, 1975. On the flight home from Paris I had promised myself I would try to do something of value for other people. I had no idea what I would do.
It was time to live the dream I had read about in Richard Bach's book titled Jonathan Livingston Seagull. That bird discovered through his mistakes that he could become better...become who he was meant to be...he discovered that deep down in his soul he should not put limits on his dreams. I try to live by that motto by never, never putting limits on your dreams.
How did I start painting at Northside Hospital...I committed myself to the thought I had leaving Paris for Atlanta...to be in a space where I could help someone else.
I had my doctor, Thorne Winter, call the Administrator of Northside Hospital, Chris Clark, to introduce me and to convince him that I wasn't crazy. I met Chris Clark in December of 1974. He suggested that I might be of value by volunteering in the psychiatric ward. I started the first Sunday night after January 1st by knocking on the heavy metal locked door of the unit and announcing myself. I was there help...to simply be in a space where people needed help. What kind of help it's hard to explain. I did not put limits on my thoughts...or the situation at hand...I was just there.
In anticipation of needing to do something, I had prepared a little slide show that explained what art was...what types of paintings had been done...it was an attempt of giving an art history lesson. Well, the impact was terrible...on the patients, the staff and on me...it was absolutely boring. I presented the slide show two Sunday nights and couldn't continue. I had to do something else. I decided to take in a painting I had not finished and to paint in front of the patients. While painting on a canvas, I looked up and saw a lady from Dunwoody (a suburb of Atlanta) starring at a blank wall...she was very depressed.
It was like a strike of lighting, I looked at her and then the wall, and realized that we could love and comfort people in pain by putting art where we needed it the most, on blank, cold, hard walls in hospitals. You can't think of two things at once. We could paint out the pain by putting paintings in front of their eyes...their minds.
Years later, I discovered that Paul Gauguin surrounded himself with his art while dying in his hut in Tai Haiti. He wanted the dying process to be beautiful...soft and not hard. It made sense to me.
Once I had approval to paint the wall, the patient asked, "What are you going to paint." I thought, since you want to see what is on the other side of the wall, why don't we simply paint that scene....why don't we bring the outside inside...create windows. That has been our theme over the years...to change the way hospitals look by bringing the outside world into the patient's world...to open up their confined world of blank walls and ceilings.
The next mural changed my life completely. I was sitting on the floor painting my mural when a nurse brought a little four-year-old girl out into the hallway. She came up to me and said, "I want to paint". I turned to see her and discovered a little girl who had been severely burned in a car crash. She became precious to me...not the art. People are precious, not art. I realized I had it all backwards. That's why I went to Paris. I discovered in an instant with that touch that art can love...art can help us heal...that I must share my art with that little girl. The little girl painted and then the world started to paint.
Since that moment, the idea that art can love and heal has reached over 2,500 hospitals in 193 countries with the help of over 500,000 volunteers. That little girl started the dream...a dream that has no end. The walls and ceiling of hospitals around the world are countless.